Jaws is a lively, chaotic swirl of contradictions, prodigious talent, and formal mastery. It’s a thriller that played a role in the entire restructuring of Hollywood’s methods of selling its films to the public. Jaws was the sure-to-be calamity that became one of the most beloved and quoted films of all time—a certain generation’s Citizen Kane that gave rise to a legendary, controversial filmmaker and seemingly turned everyone else into aspiring directors. It also played a role in the rise of an obsession with a kind of theme-park movie that gluts global cinemas to this day. That’s a lot of baggage for any movie, much less a monster movie with grade-Z roots, to live up or down to.
The surprise is how good it was and still is. The film is a strange mixture of the über-controlled and the wild and wooly. Imagine if portions of Psycho were spliced into one of Hal Ashby’s early films and you’d be closer to the film’s tone than you might think. Jaws is neatly split into two almost entirely different films: the first half is a sophisticated comedy in which violence and despair are allowed to make occasionally discombobulating intrusions; and the second, daringly, is an even more violent parody of the self-flattering macho courtliness that we often find in existential, chest-thrumming stories of all kinds. The Peter Benchley novel that inspired the film played its material dead-straight, and it’s a grim, dull endeavor that got by on the enormous primal appeal of its high concept, but the filmmakers took the basic structure, threw out most of the busy plotting, and created a black parody of greed, studliness, and self-entitlement—in other words, a parody of America.
The director, of course, is Steven Spielberg, and Jaws represented a major turning point in his career, and not just for the obviously lucrative reasons. Jaws was the capper of a kind of thematic trilogy that introduced Spielberg to the world. First there was Duel, a nihilistic film that follows an innocent man as he’s relentlessly pursued by a seemingly prehistoric tractor trailer. Then, The Sugarland Express, a warmer, even more disturbing action comedy that follows a woman’s desperate efforts to kidnap her own child. And then Jaws, which fuses the sensibilities of the first two to create, whether it’s intentional or not, a disconcerting portrait of America trying to stake its claim in a willful naïveté in the wake of all of the sobering events that define the country in the late 1960s to early 1970s: Watergate, Kent State, Vietnam, etc.
Spielberg would eventually indulge that naïveté without irony (though not nearly as often as he’s accused of), but his first few films are the work of a ferocious, open talent who was pretty much trying anything for effect. The near-miracle of Jaws, which involved the work of quite a few uncredited screenwriters, as well as impromptu story sessions and ad libs, lies in how ultimately of a piece it is. The dissonances—probably born of desperation—feel preordained, and are also the source of the film’s lasting power. Spielberg would grow self-conscious as he became more famous, trying for (and often achieving) mythical, iconic effects, but the young Spielberg was adept at capturing the quotidian that defines the working class. The people in Jaws appear to, which is unusual for contemporary movies, actually work for a living: the offices are worn and shabby, the homes are messy and constantly marked by the demands of raising children, and the adults trade in the sort of world-weary in-jokes that should be familiar to anyone who works a thankless job in an effort to barely pay the bills each year.
For that attention to detail, and for the sly storytelling (all of the film’s major set pieces are foreshadowed in fashions so subtle you’ll miss them the first time; as Billy Wilder once said: “Hide the story”), Jaws is the rare monster movie that doesn’t idly mark time as we wait for the next big shock. And the details only amplify those shocks; people tend to forget how ruthless a director Spielberg once was. By 26, he was already an impressive formalist, and he fills his wide screen with details and visual curlicues that maintain a continual apprehension. The film, as Pauline Kael wrote, has tricky editing rhythms that never properly prepare you for the scares. (Though people often misremember the first time we see the shark. It’s not the scene where Brody is shoveling chum, but briefly, and terrifyingly, during the moment before a fisherman loses his leg.)
And, yes, the shark, that unyielding colossus, looks rather fake when we finally get a good look at him, which works entirely in the film’s favor. The shark, which has effectively been built up as an object of myth and obsession for the first half of the film, would be a crushing disappointment if it looked “real,” something most contemporary monster movies, in their reliance on generic CG cartoons, seem to sadly fail to comprehend. The shark in Jaws is the shark of our collective worst nightmares, almost otherworldly in its enormity (it sometimes appears to be as big as the truck in Duel) and texture. It’s also a great big phallic joke, the agent of the blowhard Quint’s (Robert Shaw, who, wonderfully, never lets us know if he’s in on the joke or not) destruction. The shark can mean anything you want it to mean, or nothing, and that uncertainty epitomizes this movie’s lasting appeal. Jaws is the pop masterpiece as happy accident; a parody of America’s can-do spirit that’s also, by the end, a celebration of it.
I was a little nervous about the much-hyped audio/visual sprucing up that Jaws was said to be undergoing, as I thought it might represent the kind of rewriting of cinematic history for which Steven Spielberg and especially George Lucas are infamous. But you needn’t worry, as this presentation is a stunning achievement that only renders a mercilessly effective film even more so. Restored from original 35mm materials, this image has a beautiful painterly clarity that I’ve never before encountered. Flaws such as blotches or dirt have been removed, but the era-appropriate grain remains. No detectable edge enhancement, haloing, or any other potential restoration problems are present. The sound has been fiddled with to an even greater degree, as the film’s original mono track has been altered to create a contemporary 7.1 mix, which allows for the amplification of effects like the infamous dinosaur roar that can be heard as the dead shark sinks to the bottom of the ocean. The new mix is lush and detailed, and particularly effective during the crowd-panic scenes on the beach. All in all the mix is a risky move that paid off beautifully, but there’s a 2.0 mono track included as well if you’re beyond convincing.
The biggest news regarding the extras is the inclusion of "The Shark Is Still Working: The Impact & Legacy of Jaws," a feature-length documentary from 2005 that’s included here for the first time in any form of Jaws packaging. As you might expect, it’s a fan-centric piece that offers testaments from key collaborators (including Spielberg) and admiring filmmakers, as well as tidbits on production, marketing, the score, and even the rising Jawsfest in Martha’s Vineyard (where the film was shot). It’s passionate, occasionally goofy, and considerably fun. "The Making of Jaws" is the two-hour documentary by longtime Spielberg collaborator Laurent Bouzreau that’s appeared before on laserdisc and DVD versions of the film (an abbreviated form of it is also included on the enclosed DVD copy of the film under the title "Spotlight on Location: The Making of Jaws"). Fans have already seen it, and the doc is unapologetically promotional, but it still offers a rich collection of details and incident that far out-classes similar features included with most other films. There’s also a brief piece on the Jaws restoration that’s mostly promotional and an "On the Set" featurette from 1974 that shows Spielberg shooting something out in the ocean. Rounding out the package are deleted scenes and outtakes, storyboards, and the trailer.
Jaws is the definitive comedy posing as a monster movie, and this must-own Blu-ray allows it to look and sound as it never has before.